Evidence shows that various forms of abuse have spiked as a result of the social isolation caused by the coronavirus crisis. The organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) recently live streamed a panel discussion on the topic “Child Safeguarding and Survivor Care During Covid-19.” In it, panelists offered specific and practical advice for church leaders on how to go about protecting children and other vulnerable people in their congregations.
“This is what the church is for,” said Justin Holcomb, a ministry leader who is also one of GRACE’s board members. “This is where the message of Christianity comes through loud and clear.” Holcomb emphasized that church leaders should not ignore or underestimate the fact that abuse has been increasing now that people are more isolated than ever.
Protecting Children During the Crisis
Boz Tchividjian, GRACE’s founder and executive director, facilitated the discussion. In addition to Holcomb, the panel included Laura Thien and Victor Vieth (also GRACE board members), as well as attorney and abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander. While Denhollander and Thien answered questions relating to how the global crisis exacerbates survivor trauma, Holcomb and Vieth addressed what church leaders specifically can do to help abuse survivors and victims.
“Of those young people who contacted the hotline in March, 67% identified their perpetrator as a family member and 79% said they were currently living with that perpetrator.” https://t.co/udtVaeWhHz
— Boz Tchividjian (@BozT) May 1, 2020
Victor Vieth, who is a former child abuse prosecutor, outlined five factors that increase the likelihood a child will be abused during the pandemic.
- Most child abusers are in the home/family unit.
- Children are now isolated with their abusers.
- The pandemic has increased the stress on families (no outlets like going to the gym, going to a game, etc.)
- Children are online more now, and predators know this.
- Because children are quarantined, they’re cut off from adults who could help them (teachers, faith leaders, doctors, extended family members).
“For all those reasons,” said Vieth, “most child protection professionals think child abuse is on the rise.”
Ministry leaders should be aware of potential signs of abuse and act when they see them. If you are still seeing your church members through Zoom calls, said Vieth, “Then just pay attention to certain things.” Signs of physical abuse can include:
-A handprint on a child’s face
-A pinch mark on an ear
-Forearm injuries (from self-defense)
“Beyond that,” said Vieth, “I would say to pastors and others, when you’re dialoguing with students, create an environment where they do have an outlet,” that is, an outlet to tell someone what is happening to them. If you lead a faith-based school, make sure a school counselor is available. As you’re checking on families, pay attention to how they’re managing stress, and reach out if you see something concerning. There is a lot you can tell about an environment even from a Zoom call. Pay attention to any yelling in the background. Even if no abuse is happening, you can still help a struggling family.
“This is a good time for pastors to give a sermon on these issues,” said Vieth. Even providing resources for people to help them deal with stress can go a long way: “Just creating that sort of environment can prevent at least some level of abuse.”
Vieth explained that if a church already has policies for protecting children in place, those are not irrelevant now that church bodies are not meeting in person. Leaders can adapt these policies for virtual situations by first reviewing their goals and then asking how best to achieve them now.
For example, if you have a policy that two adults are always present in the room with children, make sure that two adults are always present in a Zoom meeting with children. If you can’t do that, put the meeting on a public calendar so that other adults know it is taking place. At the very least, have a policy to record Zoom sessions so someone else can check them later.
Other rules for protecting children could be 1) when on a Zoom call, no teacher or pastor will be in a bedroom wearing pajamas, 2) there will be no texts to students in the middle of the night, and 3) another adult will always be copied on any communication between adults and youth.
Vieth stressed, “God has not left you alone in this struggle. There are multiple resources, and it is simply a matter of reaching out to those resources to get the assistance you need.”